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The Year's Best Science Fiction
Eighth Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
JAMES PATRICK KELLY
F. Scott Fitzgerald told us long ago that the rich were not like you and me, but it takes the pyrotechnic and wildly inventive story that follows, one of the year's most powerful and exciting novellas, to demonstrate just how unlike us they could eventually become ...
Like his friend and frequent collaborator John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly made his first sale in 1975, and went on to become one of the most respected and prominent new writers of the '80s. Although his most recent solo novel, Look into the Sun, was well-received, Kelly has had more impact to date as a writer of short fiction than as a novelist, and, indeed, Kelly stories such as "Solstice," "The Prisoner of Chillon," "Glass Cloud," "Rat," and "Home Front" must be ranked among the most inventive and memorable short works of the decade. Kelly's first solo novel, the mostly ignored Planet of Whispers, came out in 1984. It was followed by Freedom Beach, a novel written in collaboration with John Kessel. His story "Friend," also in collaboration with Kessel, was in our Second Annual Collection; his "Solstice" was in our Third Annual Collection; his "The Prisoner of Chillon" was in our Fourth Annual Collection; his "Glass Cloud" was in our Fifth Annual Collection; and his "Home Front" was in our Sixth Annual Collection. Born in Mineola, New York, Kelly now lives in Durham, New Hampshire, the setting for several of his stories, where he's reported to be at work on a third solo novel, Wildlife.
JAMES PATRICK KELLY
I was already twitching by the time they strapped me down. Nasty pleasure and beautiful pain crackled through me, branching and rebranching like lightning. Extreme feelings are hard to tell apart when you have endorphins spilling across your brain. Another spasm shot down my legs and curled my toes. I moaned. The stiffs wore surgical masks that hid their mouths, but I knew that they were smiling. They hated me because my mom could afford to have me stunted. When I really was just a kid I did not understand that. Now I hated them back; it helped me get through the therapy. We had a very clean transaction going here. No secrets between us.
Even though it hurts, getting stunted is still the ultimate flash. As I unlived my life, I overdosed on dying feelings and experiences. My body was not big enough to hold them all; I thought I was going to explode. I must have screamed because I could see the laugh lines crinkling around the stiffs' eyes. You do not have to worry about laugh lines after they twank your genes and reset your mitotic limits. My face was smooth and I was going to be twelve years old forever, or at least as long as Mom kept paying for my rejuvenation.
I giggled as the short one leaned over me and pricked her catheter into my neck. Even through the mask, I could smell her breath. She reeked of dead meat.
* * *
Getting stunted always left me wobbly and thick, but this time I felt like last Tuesday's pizza. One of the stiffs had to roll me out of recovery in a wheelchair.
The lobby looked like a furniture showroom. Even the plants had been newly waxed. There was nothing to remind the clients that they were bags of blood and piss. You are all biological machines now, said the lobby, clean as space station lettuce. A scattering of people sat on the hard chairs. Stennie and Comrade were fidgeting by the elevators. They looked as if they were thinking of rearranging the furniture—like maybe into a pile in the middle of the room. Even before they waved, the stiff seemed to know that they were waiting for me.
Comrade smiled. "Zdrast'ye."
"You okay, Mr. Boy?" said Stennie. Stennie was a grapefruit yellow stenonychosaurus with a brown underbelly. His razor-clawed toes clicked against the slate floor as he walked.
"He's still a little weak," said the stiff, as he set the chair's parking brake. He strained to act nonchalant, not realizing that Stennie enjoys being stared at. "He needs rest. Are you his brother?" he said to Comrade.
Comrade appeared to be a teenaged spike neck with a head of silky black hair that hung to his waist. He wore a window coat on which twenty-three different talking heads chattered. He could pass for human, even though he was really a Panasonic. "Nyet," said Comrade. "I'm just another one of his hallucinations."
The poor stiff gave him a dry nervous cough that might have been meant as a chuckle. He was probably wondering whether Stennie wanted to take me home or eat me for lunch. I always thought that the way Stennie got reshaped was more funny-looking than fierce—a python that had rear-ended an ostrich. But even though he was a head shorter than me, he did have enormous eyes and a mouthful of serrated teeth. He stopped next to the wheelchair and rose up to his full height. "I appreciate everything you've done." Stennie offered the stiff his spindly three-fingered hand to shake. "Sorry if he caused any trouble."
The stiff took it gingerly, then shrieked and flew backwards. I mean, he jumped almost a meter off the floor. Everyone in the lobby turned and Stennie opened his hand and waved the joy buzzer. He slapped his tail against the slate in triumph. Stennie's sense of humor was extreme, but then he was only thirteen years old.
* * *
Stennie's parents had given him the Nissan Alpha for his twelfth birthday and we had been customizing it ever since. We installed blue mirror glass and Stennie painted scenes from the Late Cretaceous on the exterior body armor. We ripped out all the seats, put in a wall-to-wall gel mat and a fridge and a microwave and a screen and a mini-dish. Comrade had even done an illegal operation on the carbrain so that we could override in an emergency and actually steer the Alpha ourselves with a joystick. It would have been cramped, but we would have lived in Stennie's car if our parents had let us.
"You okay there, Mr. Boy?" said Stennie.
"Mmm." As I watched the trees whoosh past in the rain, I pretended that the car was standing still and the world was passing me by.
"Think of something to do, okay?" Stennie had the car and all and he was fun to play with, but ideas were not his specialty. He was probably smart for a dinosaur. "I'm bored."
"Leave him alone, will you?" Comrade said.
"He hasn't said anything yet." Stennie stretched and nudged me with his foot. "Say something." He had legs like a horse: yellow skin stretched tight over long bones and stringy muscle.
"Prosrees! He just had his genes twanked, you jack." Comrade always took good care of me. Or tried to. "Remember what that's like? He's in damage control."
"Maybe I should go to socialization," Stennie said. "Aren't they having a dance this afternoon?"
"You're talking to me?" said the Alpha. "You haven't earned enough learning credits to socialize. You're a quiz behind and forty-five minutes short of E-class. You haven't linked since ..."
"Just shut up and drive me over." Stennie and the Alpha did not get along. He thought the car was too strict. "I'll make up the plugging quiz, okay?" He probed a mess of empty juice boxes and snack wrappers with his foot. "Anyone see my comm anywhere?"
Stennie's schoolcomm was wedged behind my cushion. "You know," I said, "I can't take much more of this." I leaned forward, wriggled it free and handed it over.
"Of what, poputchik?" said Comrade. "Joyriding? Listening to the lizard here?"
Stennie flipped up the screen of his comm and went on line with the school's computer. "You guys help me, okay?" He retracted his claws and tapped at the oversized keyboard.
"It's extreme while you're on the table," I said, "but now I feel empty. Like I've lost myself."
"You'll get over it," said Stennie. "First question: Brand name of the first wiseguys sold for home use?"
"NEC-Bots, of course," said Comrade.
"Geneva? It got nuked, right?"
"Haile Selassie was that king of Egypt who the Marleys claim is god, right? Name the Cold Wars: Nicaragua, Angola ... Korea was the first." Typing was hard work for Stennie; he did not have enough fingers for it. "One was something like Venezuela. Or something."
"Sure it wasn't Venice?"
"Or Venus?" I said, but Stennie was not paying attention.
"All right, I know that one. And that. The Sovs built the first space station. Ronald Reagan—he was the president who dropped the bomb?"
Comrade reached inside of his coat and pulled out an envelope. "I got you something, Mr. Boy. A get well present for your collection."
I opened it and scoped a picture of a naked dead fat man on a stainless steel table. The print had a DI verification grid on it, which meant this was the real thing, not a composite. Just above the corpse's left eye there was a neat hole. It was rimmed with purple which had faded to bruise blue. He had curly gray hair on his head and chest, skin the color of dried mayonnaise and a wonderfully complicated penis graft. He looked relieved to be dead. "Who was he?" I liked Comrade's present. It was extreme.
"CEO of Infoline. He had the wife, you know, the one who stole all the money so she could download herself into a computer."
I shivered as I stared at the dead man. I could hear myself breathing and feel the blood squirting through my arteries. "Didn't they turn her off?" I said. This was the kind of stuff we were not even supposed to imagine, much less look at. Too bad they had cleaned him up. "How much did this cost me?"
"You don't want to know."
"Hey!" Stennie thumped his tail against the side of the car. "I'm taking a quiz here and you guys are drooling over porn. When was the First World Depression?"
"Who cares?" I slipped the picture back into the envelope and grinned at Comrade.
"Well, let me see then." Stennie snatched the envelope. "You know what I think, Mr. Boy? I think this corpse jag you're on is kind of sick. Besides, you're going to get in trouble if you let Comrade keep breaking laws. Isn't this picture private?"
"Privacy is twentieth century thinking. It's all information, Stennie, and information should be accessible." I held out my hand. "But if glasnost bothers you, give it up." I wiggled my fingers.
Comrade snickered. Stennie pulled out the picture, glanced at it and hissed. "You're scaring me, Mr. Boy."
His schoolcomm beeped as it posted his score on the quiz and he sailed the envelope back across the car at me. "Not Venezuela, Viet Nam. Hey, Truman dropped the plugging bomb. Reagan was the one who spent all the money. What's wrong with you dumbscuts? Now I owe school another fifteen minutes."
"Hey, if you don't make it look good, they'll know you had help." Comrade laughed.
"What's with this dance anyway? You don't dance." I picked Comrade's present up and tucked it into my shirt pocket. "You find yourself a cush or something, lizard boy?"
"Maybe." Stennie could not blush but sometimes when he was embarrassed the loose skin under his jaw quivered. Even though he had been reshaped into a dinosaur, he was still growing up. "Maybe I am getting a little. What's it to you?"
"If you're getting it," I said, "it's got to be microscopic." This was a bad sign. I was losing him to his dick, just like all the other pals. No way I wanted to start over with someone new. I had been alive for twenty-five years now. I was running out of things to say to thirteen-year-olds.
As the Alpha pulled up to the school, I scoped the crowd waiting for the doors to open for third shift. Although there were a handful of stunted kids, a pair of gorilla brothers who were football stars and Freddy the Teddy, a bear who had furry hands instead of real paws, the majority of students at New Canaan High looked more or less normal. Most working stiffs thought that people who had their genes twanked were freaks.
"Come get me at 5:15," Stennie told the Alpha. "In the meantime, take these guys wherever they want to go." He opened the door. "You rest up, Mr. Boy, okay?"
"What?" I was not paying attention. "Sure." I had just seen the most beautiful girl in the world.
She leaned against one of the concrete columns of the portico, chatting with a couple other kids. Her hair was long and nut-colored and the ends twinkled. She was wearing a loose black robe over mirror skintights. Her schoolcomm dangled from a strap around her wrist. She appeared to be seventeen, maybe eighteen. But of course, appearances could be deceiving.
Girls had never interested me much, but I could not help but admire this one. "Wait, Stennie! Who's that?" She saw me point at her. "With the hair?"
"She's new—has one of those names you can't pronounce." He showed me his teeth as he got out. "Hey Mr. Boy, you're stunted. You haven't got what she wants."
He kicked the door shut, lowered his head and crossed in front of the car. When he walked he looked like he was trying to squash a bug with each step. His snaky tail curled high behind him for balance, his twiggy little arms dangled. When the new girl saw him, she pointed and smiled. Or maybe she was pointing at me.
"Where to?" said the car.
"I don't know." I sank low into my seat and pulled out Comrade's present again. "Home, I guess."
* * *
I was not the only one in my family with twanked genes. My mom was a three-quarters scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. Originally she wanted to be full-sized, but then she would have been the tallest thing in New Canaan, Connecticut. The town turned her down when she applied for a zoning variance. Her lawyers and their lawyers sued and countersued for almost two years. Mom's claim was that since she was born human, her freedom of form was protected by the Thirtieth Amendment. However, the form she wanted was a curtain of reshaped cells which would hang on a forty-two meter high ferroplastic skeleton. Her structure, said the planning board, was clearly subject to building codes and zoning laws. Eventually they reached an out-of-court settlement, which was why Mom was only as tall as an eleven story building.
She complied with the town's request for a setback of five hundred meters from Route 123. As Stennie's Alpha drove us down the long driveway, Comrade broadcast the recognition code which told the robot sentries that we were okay. One thing Mom and the town agreed on from the start: no tourists. Sure, she loved publicity, but she was also very fragile. In some places her skin was only a centimeter thick. Chunks of ice falling from her crown could punch holes in her.
The end of our driveway cut straight across the lawn to Mom's granite-paved foundation pad. To the west of the plaza, directly behind her, was a utility building faced in ashlar that housed her support systems. Mom had been bioengineered to be pretty much self-sufficient. She was green not only to match the real Statue of Liberty but also because she was photosynthetic. All she needed was a yearly truckload of fertilizer, water from the well, and a hundred and fifty kilowatts of electricity a day. Except for emergency surgery, the only time she required maintenance was in the fall, when her outer cells tended to flake off and had to be swept up and carted away.
Stennie's Alpha dropped us off by the doorbone in the right heel and then drove off to do whatever cars do when nobody is using them. Mom's greeter was waiting in the reception area inside the foot.
"Peter." She tried to hug me but I dodged out of her grasp. "How are you, Peter?"
"Tired." Even though Mom knew I did not like to be called that, I kissed the air near her cheek. Peter Cage was her name for me; I had given it up years ago.
"You poor boy. Here, let me see you." She held me at arm's length and brushed her fingers against my cheek. "You don't look a day over twelve. Oh, they do such good work—don't you think?" She squeezed my shoulder. "Are you happy with it?"
I think my mom meant well, but she never did understand me. Especially when she talked to me with her greeter remote. I wormed out of her grip and fell back onto one of the couches. "What's to eat?"
"Doboys, noodles, fries—whatever you want." She beamed at me and then bent over impulsively and gave me a kiss that I did not want. I never paid much attention to the greeter; she was lighter than air. She was always smiling and asking five questions in a row without waiting for an answer and flitting around the room. It wore me out just watching her. Naturally everything I said or did was cute, even if I was trying to be obnoxious. It was no fun being cute. Today Mom had her greeter wearing a dark blue dress and a very dumb white apron. The greeter's umbilical was too short to stretch up to the kitchen. So why was she wearing an apron? "I'm really, really glad you're home," she said.
"I'll take some cinnamon doboys." I kicked off my shoes and rubbed my bare feet through the dense black hair on the floor. "And a beer."
All of Mom's remotes had different personalities. I liked Nanny all right; she was simple but at least she listened. The lovers were a challenge because they were usually too busy looking into mirrors to notice me. Cook was as pretentious as a four star menu; the housekeeper had all the charm of a vacuum cleaner. I had always wondered what it would be like to talk directly to Mom's main brain up in the head, because then she would not be filtered through a remote. She would be herself.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 1991 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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